Triumphant second acts are not the career norm for former television showrunners and creators. Some move on to developing TV shows with members of One Direction, others effectively retire. Even if talented writers and auteurs find success on a different project, rarely if ever do they venture to other mediums. This isn't just true of the entertainment world. After all, no one talks with reverence about Michael Jordan's baseball career.
But Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, in between writing and running one of the most lauded series in TV history, and lining up his next television project, wrote a novel. And it's wondrous.
If Mad Men is a tall, complex drink that you sip slowly, so as to better admire its ingredients and preparation, Heather, the Totality is its spiritual and logistical opposite. It clocks in at a brisk 130-something pages. If the novel has a flaw, it's that it ends too quickly.
The setup is simple. Mark Breakstone works in finance, and earns more money than he ever thought possible. He meets Karen, beautiful and languishing in an unremarkable career in publicity, on a blind date; their courtship is odd, warm, and reassuring to them both. After they marry, Karen gets pregnant, and they move "to a ten-unit apartment building west of Park Avenue, an area known as one of the last real neighborhoods in Manhattan. The three-bedroom had no balcony but was one floor below the penthouse and had a view over the rooftops of brownstones with almost nothing postwar in sight and there was a chain coffee shop or optician on every corner and a grocery store that felt like an old-time market and a few tall buildings, which still had shiny brass elevator doors."
This description is telling of Weiner's style. It is both limited and unreserved: 82 words, not all of them providing a heavily decorated impression of the Breakstones' new residence. Yet the passage grants just enough of a glimpse that the details fill themselves in automatically. So subtle is the speed and confidence of Weiner's prose that the reader isn't even aware that they're constructing a scene rich with detail based on the few shreds of information they're given. This is reminiscent of how he used the city on Mad Men, a show whose production moved to L.A. after its pilot but remained set in the snow, yellow cabs, and swirling vortex of New York City's sensory deluge.
The few things we know about Karen — blue eyes, dark hair, "great rack," a partiality for satin velvet while furnishing their Upper East Side apartment, short-lived career in publicity — help manufacture the impression that she will be happy raising her daughter, no other duties required. And for a time, she is — Heather has blonde hair, large blue eyes, and boasts squeals and laughter that "won over even the most downbeat New Yorkers." She is an exceptional child, whose empathy confounds adults and whose spirit revives her peers. Mark and Karen need her to be special, to make their frequent arguments and distance in and out of bed amount to something other than an expensive apartment and fancy vacations.
Concurrent to Mark and Karen's narrative is the cold, brutal tale of Bobby Klasky, the fatherless son with a junkie mother, born to ignominy in Harrison, New Jersey. Undiluted dread seeped down my spine as I read of his incipient criminal behavior:
Only by accident did Bobby finally discover his own power when he saw a bird trapped inside the window air conditioner and turned it on and watched in awe as the animal was battered by the fan until blood sprayed out the vent. [Heather, the Totality]
The acuity of Mark's anxieties as the father to a young woman — Heather is in high school by the novel's final third — made me wonder whether Weiner's own psyche was projected onto his protagonist's. (Weiner has four sons and no daughters.) The primal nature of each character's internal strife is a plot device planned with great precision. For Karen it's the continued welfare of her daughter, but added to it is her desire to be friends with an aloof teenager. For Mark it's the continued safety of his daughter, the one good thing left in his life. For Bobby it's the next means by which he'll achieve release, of a physiological nature, all via a criminal act he hasn't yet explored. For Heather it's her parents' dead-end lives and obscene wealth; as a prodigious member of her school's debate team she is vigilant about excess, arguing politely and cheerfully about gun control and wealth redistribution. Her own hypocrisy bothers her too.
She also loved winning, which she did often and politely, appearing earnestly concerned with facts and morality but secretly cheering with victory. [Heather, the Totality]
I'm startled, even now, by how fiercely I was rooting for Heather when I read that passage. I needed her to be exceptional too, and I was willing to forgive her doubts in exchange. In 130 pages, Heather's creator made me just as dependent on her future as Heather's parents.
I wish I could say the novel is poorly written, that Weiner's talent lies only in screenwriting, that such a project was unwise for a man of his reputation and achievement. But I can't. Heather, the Totality is perfect. Its creator is batting a thousand and doesn't seem likely to fall short of our grand expectations of his work. To quote his own acknowledgements, how did he get so lucky?